Thursday, July 31, 2008
Next Stool Over
PZ Myers has a review of Ken Miller's Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America's Soul in Nature, a portion of which you can read even if you don't have a subscription. The review is favorable but PZ has at least one prominent criticism:
Only a Theory deals poorly with one central aspect of this battle: why this problem is so much greater in the United States than elsewhere. Miller's rationalizations are sometimes painful to read. Europe's relative freedom from the scourge of creationism is explained with a condescending anecdote: a British colleague offers that any outbreak of such nonsense is rapidly quashed by "dispatch[ing] a couple of dons from Oxford or Cambridge" to overawe the locals with their prestigious degrees, to which the populace will defer. The popularity of creationism in the United States is ascribed to independence and rebelliousness rather than religiosity, which, as someone who has dealt with many creationists, I find disingenuous. The hallmark of almost any creationist argument is the tireless bleating of the same points we have rebutted since the trial of teacher John Scopes in Tennessee in 1925, which tested the law on teaching Darwinian evolutionary theory; the only twists come from new creationist authorities that enter the fray. An equivalent US variant of Miller's British anecdote is that the enemies of science need only dispatch Dembski or Behe from the Discovery Institute in Seattle, Washington, to stir up more doctrinaire creationism among school boards and in elections and churches. To call US citizens more independent-minded than European citizens flatters the creationists too much and demeans Europeans.
America is at least idealized by its citizens as an egalitarian society. Every person's opinion is, so the mythos goes, as good as anyone else's. As a political prescription, that is common liberal democratic (small "d") theory. But as a theory of how to evaluate knowledge, it is a disaster. I am not equal to PZ in determining what is true and false when it comes to biology and he is not my equal when it comes to judging the law. That is not because PZ couldn't learn the law or I biology, it is mostly a result of our present level of learning.
And yet, there is a strong streak in Americans to discount expertise and to think that anyone can, no matter how little they have studied a subject, with perhaps some minimal "input" from some supposed "expert" (whose qualifications they are just as unqualified to judge), reach a considered opinion on some complex subject like evolutionary theory or global warming or the best energy policy.
This is, I think, the source of the trope that the Carnival of Elitist Bastards was founded to fight, that academics and intellectuals are "elites" who unjustifiably dominate issues in their field. Americans who have read one or two books from authors of dubious expertise and objectivity nonetheless feel comfortable in publicly pronouncing such things as "there is no evidence for evolution." Sometimes minds get so independent that they wander off and are never heard of again.
While I won't venture an opinion as to what extent Europeans suffer or avoid this tendency (European culture not being my field, you see), I think it is fair to say that the distaste that Americans have for class distinctions plays into this phenomenon, where experts are often viewed as no more reliable a source of information than some guy down at the corner bar. If Europeans have avoided that, they are to be congratulated.
Maybe the Europeans have a better handle on this problem than we do -- at least the 'Western' Europeans -- and perhaps part of the solution they've hit upon is a higher level of basic (non-university) education or maybe more consistency across different universities? (A degree from Liberty University would not be taken seriously over there!)
In general, I think that the tensions between democracy and expertise are the source of almost all of our persistent political problems -- creationism vs. evolution being only one.
It's always something!
... perhaps part of the solution they've hit upon is a higher level of basic (non-university) education or maybe more consistency across different universities? (A degree from Liberty University would not be taken seriously over there!)
I wouldn't be surprised if their better record (if that's what it is) has an element of hangover from the old class system to it. What might help us? Maybe more emphasis on teaching about knowledge -- the general outlines of it, where to find it and how to evaluate it -- and less on rote teaching aimed at getting kids to pass tests. Trying to get them to learn how to learn and showing them why it is fun to do so.
What at am I thinking? That would make for a real education.
You do realize I now expect a COTEB submission on this topic from you, right?
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